Jones-Miller Collection

The Jones-Miller Site Collection: a 10,000-year-old Bison butchery site

In 1972, rancher Robert Jones, Jr. was extending one of his agricultural fields. In this process, Jones came across a dug-up section of earth that had bone in it. Finding bone during this work was not unusual; Jones had found bone in his fields before. What was unique in this instance was the thick concentration of the bone. He knew something was different with this discovery. The Jones family reached out to their friend, Rueben Miller, who came to visit the site. Miller worked for the Colorado State Highway Department, and seeing the bone, agreed that the concentration was unique. He reached out to archaeological colleagues to come investigate the site. Through this network, Dennis Stanford’s attention was brought to the site.

Dennis Stanford worked for the Smithsonian Institution, and with additional funding through National Geographic, he led excavations and research teams at the site in the summers of 1973, 1974, and 1975. These teams excavated the site in 2 x 2-meter grids, carefully uncovering the bison bone bed. They worked each year to determine the extent of the site, while also investigating the fields near and adjacent to the uncovered bone concentration to determine if there was evidence for camps, hearths, homes, or work areas next to the butchery site. When the excavation was complete, approximately 41,000 Bison bones, nearly 500 liters of soil samples, and over 200 stone tools had been cleared from the site. The Jones family was able to utilize the field again, and still farm there to present day.

The excavated bone and all other items were sent to the Smithsonian with Stanford on a long-term loan from Denver Museum of Nature and Science to be analyzed. In 2017, the collection came back to DMNS. Our collections assistants, Natalie Patton and Amy Gillaspie, along with the anthropology collections team will be working through 2022 and 2023 to organize and catalog the collection in an effort to make it accessible for future research. Please reach out to us with any questions about the Jones-Miller site and collection, and stay tuned to site and our DMNS Social Media accounts for updates as we work!

Facts about the Jones-Miller Collection

Who killed the Jones-Miller bison?

Many people wonder what specific group of people hunted and butchered the bison at the Jones-Miller site. The answer is that we do not know. Archaeologists have named the people Paleoindian, and they cannot be traced to just one modern Native American peoples.

How big were Bison antiquus?

Bison antiquus was about 25% larger than our modern bison. Today’s bison are on average 6 feet tall at their highest point, which is their humps. Bison antiquus was roughly 7.5 feet tall and 15 feet long. They had larger horns that measured 3 feet from tip to tip, and could weigh up to 3,500 pounds!

Why did Bison antiquus go extinct?

During the end of the Ice Age, or Pleistocene, many megafauna and megaflora went extinct due to the changing climate and its effects on the natural world. With fewer large predators like sabretooth cats and dire wolves, in addition to changing grasses, Bison antiquus evolved to be more compact to adjust to this changing world. Modern bison are believed to be evolved from Bison antiquus during the Late Pleistocene-Holocene transition (about 12,000 years ago).

How were Bison antiquus hunted?

Bison are animals that herd in very predictable ways, and it is very difficult to separate individuals from the larger herd. Bison herds are made up of a lead female bison or cow at the front, younger bison are kept in the middle, and the other cows surround the young on the perimeters. Understanding bison behavior is the first step in hunting them successfully. Since it is very difficult to hunt single bison, it is much easier to manipulate and drive the whole herd into an area where they can be killed.

“But these were huge animals!” you exclaim, “How on earth do you spear something almost 8 feet tall?” The answer again lies in understanding the animal and its anatomy. Most mammals have two separate pleural or lung cavities, but Bison have what is called an incomplete mediastinum, which means there is only one pleural cavity that contains BOTH lungs. How cool is that(!) and why does that matter? If a spear hits the lung cavity, then both lungs deflate almost instantly killing the bison. 

How can you tell what time of the year the bison were killed?

Archaeologists look at something called tooth eruption in the younger bison at the site. Tooth eruption is the process of when teeth enter the mouth and become visible. Just like when humans lose their baby teeth and get their adult teeth during certain ages, baby bison also get their molars. By looking at the young bison teeth, we can tell how old the bison were when they were killed. But wait, how does knowing how old bison are help with understanding the season when they were killed? 

Bison are what we call a “pulse-birth species” which means they mate and give birth at the same times every year. In fact, bison always give birth during the same 3-4 week time span at the end of April and beginning of May every year! If we know bison are always born at the same time every year and how old they were when they were killed based on their tooth eruption, then we can calculate what season the bison were most likely killed during.

Why were so many bison killed at once?

To answer this, we have to again look at understanding bison herding behavior. Since it is so difficult to separate individual bison from their larger herd, hunters would have been more successful in manipulating the whole herd of bison. Hunters would construct mounds of stone along the path to the kill site and add twigs, brush, and flags that would move in the breeze. Bison have poor eyesight, and these moving objects would frighten them to move in a specific direction. So, in short, it is easier to kill many bison that like to herd together rather than try and go one-on-one with an aggressive bison.

What other artifacts were found at the Jones-Miller site?

Stanford and his team took considerable time to investigate the landscape and area near the bison kill site. They looked for evidence of nearby homes or camps, which were not found. Although the team was not able to learn about activities outside of the bison bone bed, they could learn more about the climate and landscape from 10,000 years ago. The archaeologists took soil samples from the excavation, as well as from locations around the excavation in order to conduct pollen analysis, which provides information on what plants were in the area at the time of the site’s use. 

In addition to soil samples, many stone tools were excavated from the site. About 200 tools and projectile points were found mixed in with the bones. The projectile points would have been fastened onto the ends of spears, and the style of these points is called the Hells Gap style. This spear point has a thick base that flares out before narrowing into the point. Thousands of small pieces of stone that archaeologists call micro-flakes or debitage were recovered just east of the excavation. Finding these micro-flakes tells us that people would retouch or resharpen their tools nearby, with the small pieces of debitage falling to the ground during that process. Analysts can also look at the time of stone used to make these tools and spear points, and determine geologically where the stone type came from. Sometimes the stones are local, and sometimes they are from hundreds of miles away. The Jones-Miller collection has both local and nonlocal stone present!

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